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1491: The truth about the Americas before Columbus

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  • 1491: The truth about the Americas before Columbus

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    1491: The truth about the Americas before Columbus

    by Benjamin Dangl
    ZNet Commentary
    July 9, 2006


    In many high school history classes students are told that before
    Columbus arrived the Americas were full of untamed wilderness loosely
    populated with savage Indians. Charles Mann's book, 1491: New
    Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus proves that the opposite
    is true.

    He draws from recent archeological and scientific discoveries to
    describe booming civilizations which thrived throughout the Americas
    centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Like Howard Zinn's A
    People's History of the United States this book made me want to call
    up my old history teachers and tell them they were very wrong. In
    fact, Mann's self-described thesis is to show that indigenous
    societies before the arrival of Columbus deserve more than a few
    misleading pages in a textbook.

    Mann was able to hold my attention not just with the details of
    complex indigenous societies, but also with controversies, adventures
    and divisions among the scientists and archeologists which have
    contributed to what we know of pre-Columbian history. Not only is he
    able to make squabbles between European archeologists interesting,
    but he's able to smoothly describe scientific data and Mayan politics
    in the same breath.

    The book is brimming with shocking information like the fact that the
    city of Tiwanaku, in what is now Bolivia, had 115,000 people living
    in it in 1000 A.D., a population that Paris would not reach for five
    centuries. Among other surprises we learn that Pocahontas means
    "little hellion" and there are less people living in the Amazon now
    than there were in 1491. Mann points out that the British and French,
    not the indigenous people, were the savages. The Europeans arriving
    in North America smelled horrible; some of them had never taken a
    bath their whole lives. On the other hand, the indigenous people were
    generally very clean, strong and well nourished.

    The first section of the book deals largely with new revelations
    about the sicknesses such as small pox and Hepatitis A which ravaged
    the native populations of the Americas shortly after the arrival of
    the Europeans. The death toll is as surprising as the size of the
    populations before Columbus. When Columbus landed, there were an
    estimated 25 million people living in Mexico. At the time, there were
    only 10 million people in Spain and Portugal. Central Mexico was more
    densely populated than China or India when Columbus arrived. An
    estimated 90-112 million lived in the Americas, which was a larger
    population than that of Europe. Mann also pointed out that the Incas
    ruled the biggest empire on earth ever. In their prime, the kingdom's
    span equaled the distance between St. Petersburg and Cairo.

    The bloodshed unleashed by the Europeans had a lot do with killing
    off of these populations. Yet sickness played perhaps an even larger
    role. Smallpox hit the Andes before Spain's Pizarro did, killing off
    most people and plunging the area into civil war. The sickness is
    thought to have arrived to the region from the Caribbean. Hepatitis A
    killed off an estimated 90% of the population in coastal New England
    in 3 years. Within first years of European contact, 95% of native
    populations died. These numbers seem hard to believe, but Mann's
    exhausting research draws from decades of investigations from dozens
    of scientists and archeologists.

    While reading this book, I realized how inaccurate it is to describe
    the Americas as the "New World." Nothing could be further from the
    truth. The Americas were inhabited by people 20-30,0000 years ago.
    Europe, on the other hand, was occupied by humans more recently,
    18,000 years ago at the most.

    This book proves that the wilderness in the Americas before the
    Europeans arrived was far from wild and untouched by humans. Mann
    argues that pre-Columbus wilderness was totally affected and shaped
    by the native people that lived there. For example, the Mayans
    destroyed their own environment; they cut down too many trees and
    exhausted the soil. As their population expanded the environment and
    agriculture could no longer sustain them. This greatly contributed to
    their collapse.

    Other indigenous groups altered their ecosystems to facilitate their
    survival. Societies in the Amazon regularly burned down vast expanses
    of the forest; the charred soil was good for agriculture and the fire
    flushed out animals for food. The plains the US are believed to be a
    result of similar forest-burning techniques. Indigenous hunters
    before Columbus sought out pregnant animals to lower the population;
    indigenous people competed with animals for food, berries and nuts.
    Indigenous societies also built vast canals, cities, irrigation
    systems, large agricultural fields, entirely changing the wilderness
    for human use.

    When the first European explorers passed over the Mississippi they
    saw millions of bison and other animals. This was not because
    indigenous people didn't hunt them. In fact, these animal populations
    were large because their predators, the indigenous people, had been
    killed off by European sicknesses. Similarly, the death from these
    sicknesses allowed ecosystems to thrive without the impact of humans
    until the European colonies expanded. What Europeans actually saw
    when they fully explored and settled in "wilder" regions was the
    death of the landscape shaped by indigenous cultures.

    Though I was in awe of such revelations and the vast research Mann
    put into the book, I couldn't help but wonder about his sources. I
    know that most indigenous societies did not have any extensive
    written history, and so much of what is known about their day to day
    life, culture, wars and religion is guesswork. Mann's book is based
    primarily on research, analysis and theories from Europeans and North
    Americans. Perhaps this reflects the academic, scientific and
    archeological world more than it does Mann's approach. However, I
    wanted to hear more from contemporary Mayan, Mapuche, Incan and
    Aymara people about their own versions of this history, people who
    still practice these ancient politics, customs and religions. Stories
    and histories exist among descendent of these civilizations, but Mann
    doesn't draw from them enough.

    My wariness of his choice of sources increased when he described
    visiting ruins in Peru and commented on a "curious sight":

    ".[S]kulls from the cemetery, gathered into several small piles.
    Around them were beer cans, cigarette butts, patent-medicine bottles,
    half-burned photographs and candles shaped like naked women. These
    last had voodoo pins stuck in their heads and vaginas. Local people
    came to these places at night and either dug for treasure or
    practiced witchcraft, Haas [Mann's archeologist friend] said. In the
    harsh afternoon light they seemed to me tacky and sad."

    This sounds similar to the kind of disdain the Spanish looked upon
    indigenous religions when they first arrived. How does Mann know that
    this "witchcraft" isn't a modern day version of what the Incas
    practiced? Instead of ancient broken pottery and gold jewelry, he
    found beer bottles and photographs. Why does he immediately dismiss
    this as "tacky and sad"? Could this "witchcraft" serve as a gateway
    to understanding ancient Andean religions? Elsewhere in the book he
    criticizes locals who rob from the ruins to sell gold and artifacts
    to feed their families. I'd say that gold is put to better use
    feeding a family than sitting in a museum. Observations such as these
    from Mann made me think even more about the millions of indigenous
    voices left out of this book about indigenous societies.

    None the less, it deserves to be required reading in high schools
    along with the many other books which have taken on the "official"
    histories of the hemisphere.

    [Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
    Columbus is available on Benjamin Dangl is the editor of
    UpsideDownWorld.UpsideDownWorld.<WBR>org, a website uncovering acti
    Latin America. He is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars
    and Social Movements in Bolivia" forthcoming in March, 2007 from AK
    Press. He recently won a Project Censored Award for his coverage of
    US military operations in Paraguay.]

    "There is no crueler tyranny than that which is exercised under cover
    of law, and with the colors of justice..."
    - U.S. v Jannotti, 673 F.2d 578, 614 (3d Cir. 1982)

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